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Council Raises Landing Fees, Explores Partial Closure of Santa Monica Airport

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

May 2, 2013 -- After four hours of public comment and deliberation, the City Council voted unanimously to raise fees on planes landing at Santa Monica Airport (SMO), which the City currently subsidizes with General Fund money.

The decision was made amidst a larger discussion Tuesday at a special meeting dedicated to the future of the airport after its settlement agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expires in two years. Although the City has owned and operated the airport since the late 1920s, the FAA governs its use.

Under the new fee structure, landings will rise from $2.07 to $5.48 per thousand pounds. The fees will apply to planes based out of SMO, which are currently exempt. City officials expect the fees collected will offset the airport’s current $13.3 million debt to the City.

“What we are trying to do is create a level of balance here between the cost of operating the airport and the revenues that come in from the airport,” said Council member Gleam Davis.

Opponents argued that the new fees would put SMO's flight schools out of business.

Jay Elder, executive vice president of American Flyers -- one of several flight schools at SMO -- said that the new legislation means the company would have to shoulder another $200,000 in annual fees, passing the cost on to their students.

American Flyers already pays some $100,000 in annual fees to the City, Elder said.

Howard Israel, a pilot and board member of Friends of Santa Monica Airport (FOSMO), called the plan “foolish and ill-considered,” adding, “any time you raise the cost, you get bigger, heavier, more expensive airplanes.”

He warned that the new fees would encourage more jet flights out of SMO. Opponents of the airport often point to jet operations as one of their major concerns.

Still, the larger question considered by the Council Tuesday was how to proceed concerning the future of the 187-acre airport, especially since a 1984 agreement with FAA that governs almost half of the 5,000-foot runway expires on July 1, 2015.

The Council agreed unanimously that staff should look into ways to improve the current situation at the airport, including shutting down 2,000 feet of runway after July 1, 2015 as well as looking into the feasibility of shutting down the airport entirely.

Opponents of the airport turned out in force Tuesday to advocate for closing the westernmost 2,000 feet of the runway -- governed by the 1949 “quitclaim” agreement -- once the agreement ends, in the hopes that it will eventually end all jet traffic

Outgoing Los Angeles Council Member Bill Rosendahl, a long-time opponent of the airport, likened the airport to “a motorcycle in a playground.” He implored the Council Tuesday to work with national legislators to get SMO shut down entirely.

Opponents of the airport have argued that SMO is a health and safety hazard as well as a noise nuisance.

Some airport opponents urged the City to explore ways to turn all, or some, of the airport land into a public park.

City staff, however, warned that if the airport were shut down – a move City officials claim could involve a lengthy and expensive legal battle -- it would require developing the land due to “the financial realities of the post-Redevelopment era.”

Mayor Pam O'Connor disagreed, calling the assertion that, if the airport were closed, it would mean the land would have to be developed, a scare tactic.

“It's not the location for intensive commercial development,” she said, adding that it was too early to talk about specifics about what the land could be used for.

“The basic legal reality that we're all faced with is this: The City owns the airport, operates it and is legally responsible for it, but at present, the City's choices about the airport are limited by Federal law and by various agreements,” City Attorney Marsha Moutrie told the Council Tuesday.

Davis said, “What we need to do between now and then is to determine is there some way to make the airport a better neighbor to Santa Monica.”

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